A Maine court case signals the next frontier of civil rights: transgender equality.
Where should a transgender schoolgirl be allowed to pee? To some, this may sound like a minor, insignificant question, but not to Nicole Maines, a 15-year-old transgender girl who attended Maine public schools. Born a boy biologically, Maines now self-identifies as a girl, dressing in girls’ clothing and sporting a typical 15-year-old girl’s hair and makeup. In addition to the harassment she faced from other kids, Maines also met intolerance by school officials, who refused to allow her to use the girls’ bathroom. Instead, in a remarkably insensitive decision, the school required her to use a staff bathroom after a grandparent of a male student complained that Maines shouldn’t be allowed in the little girls’ room.
Maines’ parents took her out of the school and sued the school, claiming their daughter’s potty segregation was a violation of Maine’s Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination against transgender people on the basis of their gender identity. While Maine’s Human Rights Commission held that the transgender girl was entitled to use the girls’ bathroom, a state court judge disagreed. Maine’s Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear her case, the latest evidence that the next frontier of the civil-rights movement is transgender and transsexual equality.
We often talk about “LGBT rights,” but many of the reforms to date, like civil unions and marriage equality, are primarily benefiting the Ls and the Gs (and, by extension, the Bs). The legal issues surrounding full acceptance of trans-people are likely to be messier and more confusing—and bathrooms are proving a familiar flashpoint. In Colorado, for instance, the parents of a 6-year-old girl have challenged their local school district’s refusal to permit their daughter to use the girls’ room because, biologically, the girl was born a boy and retains male genitalia. School authorities said she can use any other bathroom in the school—the boys’ bathroom, the staff bathroom, or the one in the nurse’s office—just not the one for girls. In Arizona, lawmakers have been considering a bill to prohibit transgender people from using the biologically “wrong” bathroom. The Philadelphia City Council may go the other way, by requiring new city-owned buildings to include gender-neutral bathrooms.
Restrooms are one of the last explicit vestiges of segregation on the basis of sex. In a nation evolved enough to allow women to serve in combat and have women on the presidential ticket, we still maintain strict and outdated rules that discriminate in who can use which restroom. Even at liberal law schools like UCLA, where I teach, the bathrooms are all clearly marked for gender uses in a way that no one would accept for race: there are rooms labeled specifically for men and others specifically for women.